What do you give a man who has everything and wants nothing? I know – music, beautiful voices – a song cycle! It was 2005. Charles was going to be seventy-five in 2008. I thought I was brilliant coming up with that idea for his 75th. I could surprise him with a performance of the song cycle in our living room on his birthday. The song cycle I planned to commission did not happen; instead, it morphed into a fully-fledged opera that won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for its composer, Zhou Long.
How did that happen? I had been discussing possible topics with the music ensemble I was hoping to commission, but we hadn’t been able to come up with a subject that resonated. One morning, I woke at 5:00 am and wrote the concept for Madame White Snake. Just like that. The words poured out of me. It must have been something deep inside, something pent up from my childhood. I saw so clearly the White Snake, the iconic metaphor for an indomitable spirit who shatters conventions to snatch love for an instant – before losing it all. Everything I hoped for coalesced into Madame White Snake that morning. I wrote her story with the passion of someone who had also risked everything. I really don’t have any other explanation.
And of course, there was Charles. When he awoke that morning, I waited until he’d made himself coffee; then I handed him the draft. He asked, “What’s this?” I replied, “Your birthday present.” Charles never batted an eyelid. He drank his coffee and read the concept, then he drank more coffee. Finally he said, “You may have something here.”
I never would have had the audacity to dream that we could write or produce an opera on a main stage – remember the song cycle . . .? That was the extent of it for me. But Charles was fearless. He felt that what I had handed him had potential to become a substantial piece. He saw the chance to make something beautiful, and it was full speed ahead. I’ve never looked back except to regret deeply that Charles is not here in person to share the excitement of making operas together.
Writing, commissioning, developing and producing an opera is not for the faint of heart; it’s certainly a risky proposition fraught with disaster, especially for neophytes. Yet as we delved into Madame White Snake, it became clear to us that the opera would be much more powerful as one of a trilogy of operas. Yes, we were even crazier than anyone could have imagined, for we actually believed we could create and produce a trilogy of new operas in an all day affair, separated by lunch and dinner, of course. Once we mulled over this idea, I began outlining the other two pieces that are now premiering as Naga and Gilgamesh.
I don’t want to mislead anyone reading these few paragraphs into believing that everything fell into place miraculously. Looking back on the last ten years of agonizing over details, cajoling, threatening, fighting, crying, laughing, hugging, worrying, giving up in despair, starting all over . . . I don’t know how I managed to arrive at this place now – poised on the edge of a world premiere of the entire Trilogy. By the time Ouroboros Trilogy premieres in September 2016, it would have been eleven years from conception to fruition. What a journey, my dear Charles. The White Snake reaches for her dream knowing she is defying destiny.
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